CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Cristina Bolling | The Charlotte Observer) - Not even two months have passed since Tracy Stiles left home for a doctor's visit and never came back.
The Charlotte mother of two died Oct. 9 in a crash on Albemarle Road. On that day, Jeff Stiles became both mom and dad and for Trevor, 8, and Devin, 10.
"I feel like I have to have mama's and daddy's strengths, mama's and daddy's courage and wisdom and perseverance," Jeff Stiles says.
With Tracy gone, Stiles is tasked with giving his sons the type of Christmas Tracy would have wanted: One with toys under the tree, visits to grandparents' houses and lots of smiles. "I'm going to do what Tracy would do if she was here: Keep it moving," Stiles says. "Just because we can't see her doesn't mean she isn't here. That's what I tell my boys."
Stiles, an auto body technician, will get help with gifts for his sons thanks to the Salvation Army's Christmas program. Devin and Trevor are two of about 10,700 children registered to receive toys and clothes through the program this year, which matches children in need with anonymous donors who buy the gifts.
In cases where donors don't step up, Charlotte Observer readers cover the expense by giving to the Empty Stocking Fund. Money raised by last year's Empty Stocking Fund allowed the Salvation Army to purchase 4,500 toys, 248 gifts for low-income seniors, 6,280 stockings and 21,700 stocking stuffers. Children in the program range in age from infants to 12 years old.
The bulk of the children registered with the Salvation Army's Christmas program will have their names placed on Angel Trees at local malls and businesses, in hopes that donors will pluck the names off, fulfill the children's Christmas list, and drop the toys back off, either at the tree where they pulled the wish list or at the Salvation Army Christmas center.
But lots of angels go unadopted, or their bags of gifts are returned needing "a little extra love," as Salvation Army staffers call it when a donor doesn't put quite enough gifts in a child's Christmas bag. That's where the Empty Stocking Fund comes in.
A large section of the Christmas program's headquarters, located in a former Wal-Mart building on Arrowood Road, is set up like a toy shop stocked with toys purchased with Empty Stocking money. There, volunteers "shop" to fill the gap between what donors give and what children need.
The Salvation Army's program is one of the largest in the Southeast. Some 14 percent of people in Mecklenburg County live in poverty, according to census data. To qualify for the Salvation Army program, parents had to appear in person during the month of October with official documents including birth certificates, tax documents, proof of residence and proof of need.
Trying for normalcy
Life was finally on track for the family this summer and fall, Stiles said. Both husband and wife were enjoying good, stable jobs and a relationship on solid footing. Jeff Stiles was clean after battling a drug addiction that stemmed from a car wreck that shattered his left femur and left him permanently in pain. The family was living happily together after spending more than a year apart, he said.
Jeff and Tracy, who were high school sweethearts, officially divorced in January, but reconciled on Father's Day weekend.
But because they hadn't yet remarried, Stiles says, Tracy's life insurance benefit goes to their sons, who according to the policy, can't access the money until they turn 18.
So money is tight for Stiles and his boys. Stiles works second shift, and he uses the time between dropping his boys off at school and heading to work to get his affairs straightened out: getting the house titled in his name; arranging Social Security benefits for his boys, taking them to appointments with therapists and handling insurance paperwork from Tracy's accident.
Tracy's father, John Yandle and her step-mother, Dianne Yandle, take care of the boys after school and into the evening while Jeff works second shift. Tracy's sister comes by every afternoon to help them with their homework.
John Yandle says he admires Stiles, a man he took into his home even after Tracy had forced him to move out of the couple's home for abusing drugs.
Yandle says he knew Stiles "had a good heart" and he had faith Stiles would get clean and once again be a good husband and father. Stiles says he has been drug-free for over a year.
"I'm very proud of him. He's a good dad. He gets the boys on a routine. They say it takes 20 days to change a routine. Since she passed away they're on a different routine now, but it's just about straightened out," Yandle says.
"He is dead-set on taking care of his children and doing everything he can to be a good father to them," Yandle says. "He gets them off to school in the morning and he's taking care of all their clothes, doing the laundry, taking care of the house and taking them to church."
Stiles was still in the throes of shock in late October when he asked his sons to write Christmas lists for Santa. One day while they were at school, he edited the lists and brought them to the Salvation Army's Christmas program headquarters.
The boys are hoping for bicycle-riding gear like special gloves and knee pads (Trevor learned to ride a bike over the summer), a Lego Ninjago set and a Pokemon video game for their Nintendo 3DS. Stiles is also hoping they'll each get a nice winter outfit; shopping for clothes was a task Tracy enjoyed.
On Christmas Day, Stiles says the boys will wake up and open their gifts under the tree. He'll let them each pick one favorite new toy to bring with them to visit his family in Gaston County early in the day, and then they will head to Charlotte to spend the rest of the day with Tracy's family.
He knows that's the kind of Christmas Tracy would want them to have.